Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-449-00207-1
Historical Romance, 2001
I can’t state the things that I find irritating and obnoxiously annoying in this story without giving away some really major spoilers. So if you don’t wish to be spoiled, press the back button on your browser!
I don’t deny that Linda Francis Lee is a good writer. I haven’t read a book by hers where the prose isn’t well executed. Where once she is the reigning queen of melodramatic, soap-operatic angst fest romances, she tones everything down in her latest, Nightingale’s Gate, for some lawyer-and-her-suspect murder mystery-cum-romance.
But the author loses it in this one. Big time. Nothing in this story makes even the most remote sense, and worse, underneath the gloss lie ugly misogyny and some pretty ugly concept of romance. This one is a prime example of the author forgoing coherence for the sake of cheap, manufactured scenes of over-the-top sentimentality. And it’s not a pretty sight.
This story focuses on the youngest of the late 19th-century Bostonian codependent, unable-to-communicate, extreme-Papa’s-boys Hawthorne siblings. Lucas Hawthorne is framed for the series of murders of streetwalkers and ladies of ill repute. Alice Kendall, a lawyer raring to prove her worth, takes on his case even when her father and her beau are taking the opposing side in court. Let the games begin.
Shall I list what I find wrong with this romance? If you are those overly-sensitive type who will start flaming me because I dare say that a romance novel is bad, please go away. Seriously, this is not going to be pretty.
One, Alice. She’s a woman trying to prove her skills. She graduated first in her class. But the author never lets me forget that while she may be a lawyer, Alice is a woman first. She gets jealous over all those harlotty women that are Lucas’s alibis. Her father doesn’t trust her, her beau treats her condescendingly, and she immediately thinks maybe she’s not cut out for this profession. Then Lucas gives her the whizzies and she decides, oh, she must help this man. Nice. Here is a heroine who, no matter how smart she is, just cannot function in her job without letting her “feminine virtue” overrides her common sense. Alice is overly-emotional, unprofessional, and despite being touted as an intelligent woman, acts like a wide-eyed innocent set loose in the bad, dark woods.
By the way, she takes up the job because she wants to prove her daddy wrong, that she can do her job. Nice to know that a strong woman makes decision based on the men around her.
Incidentally, Lucas owns a notorious, er, “men’s club” called Nightingale’s Gate. What are the chances of our pure heroine barging into the club and then going “Eek!”? In a bad, contrived novel like this, 100%.
Then, Lucas. He’s a rake. He consorts with prostitutes, he gambles, he drinks, and he behaves like a typical rake, generally. And here he is, accused for murder in what seems like a sealed-tight case. Does that mean he will cooperate with his defense lawyer? No, come on – let’s have him throwing her sexist innuendos and trying all he can to jeopardize her investigations and attempts to help! It’s not like he’s being framed for serial pickpocketing in Boston, nah, this is just a measly, lousy murder case, you know. Let’s have fun instead seducing and screwing his proper, prim lawyer.
For a moment there, I’m sure he’s trying to build up a case for his plea of, I don’t know, insanity? But no.
Turns out he is protecting his father, whom he is sure the murderer. Nice. This father is distant, cruel to him, treats him badly, et cetera, and our Lucas protects him. How touching. Alice is touched too. She understands that Lucas’s love is unconditional. Love is not voluntary, but codependent chains that make us all sadists. Is this a romance novel?
And yes, it’s lovely and touching. Never mind those dead streetwalkers. Presumably Lucas will die at the gallows, leaving Daddy free to carve up more streetwalkers. What are those cheap, sleazy women worth compared to an abusive daddy, right? Or is this the case of those prostitutes asking for it?
Oh, and best of all, everyone says that Lucas is being framed because he doesn’t live like the rest of them, and they hated him, scared of him because of that. So, is whoring, drinking, and gambling a lifestyle now to be applauded? Alice thinks so – look, Lucas takes care of his prostitutes! How touching! Next, this author will be telling me that a man paying for sex is akin to he performing an act of charity – those poor women need the money, yes? What a kind man! Let’s give all those men patronizing brothels a tax cut!
Nightingale’s Gate doesn’t care about the dead women. They are merely accessories to bring our two leads together. Nobody cares. Lucas doesn’t – he just wants Alice to win the case (of course, he will do his best to sabotage her efforts – this is logic). If the author has taken time to create Lucas’ confusion, say, being torn between family and duty, that’s one thing. But that’s probably too much work, so all I get is Lucas not caring about the dead women instead. In its stead, I’m told he takes care of unfortunate prostitutes. It’s like saying that while I drink and drive, I recycle my bottles, so in essence, I’m a saint, pass me my halo.
And the court case? Full of sentimental “Your honor, listen to your heart!” rubbish fit for daytime bad soap opera finales. Here, of course, is also the opportunity for the evil father to make a lovely, poignant, and utterly fake declaration of love and repentance. Everyone takes the opportunity on the stand not to testify, but to bombard every unfortunate losers in the audience with over-the-top mushy speeches of love, hearts, and trust. I wait for the judge to get a hyperglycemic seizure, but he’s a stronger man than I am.
And who is the murderer? Well, Alice has a beau… Never mind that it makes no sense and the final “Ha, ha, me mad man cut you up!” climax has this “the author pulls this scene out of her shapely bum, damn logic and coherence!” feel to it. With one neat stroke, the author has Alice free to love, Lucas free too, and me totally insulted ten thousand ways to kingdom come.
Oh, and I am never allowed any glimpse into Lucas’s psyche. Wanna keep the suspense, doncha know. So, all I get throughout this book is Alice loving Lucas no matter how much he insults her, mocks her skills, takes her for granted, and even withholds important information from her. But hey, I guess I am supposed to fall on my knees and weep for joy because Lucas suddenly realizes he loves her at the second last chapter. Oh, screw self-respect, all a woman needs is a man in her life. He’s a jerk – who cares! As long as he says he loves her at the last page, all is forgiven. Pass me the bucket – I’m going to vomit blood.
And the whole trilogy, to be honest, doesn’t make sense either. In books one and two, the father is dirt and the mother a passive codependent whiner. But in this book, apparently the couples in the previous two books are now living happily in the same area where their self-esteem was used as public toilets by the townspeople as well as their parents. Apparently all is pretty well with said couple with the parents, while, conveniently, the parents are still having problems with the single son. Either this is a novel way of driving your kids to marry and give you grandkids or the author is probably more tipsy than she thought when she plotted out this whole trilogy thing. As stand-alone books, they make more sense than when stringed into a trilogy. Unless, of course, it is her idea to make a Full House trilogy, where everyone hugs in a rushed, implausible quick ending. Only in Nightingale’s Gate, it is the courthouse that goes “Awww.” No one cares about the dead prostitutes, they just want to see dashing Lucas walk free.
This story could have worked if the whole affair makes sense. The author, instead, chooses to string together tried-and-true clichés in a way that doesn’t make sense at all, and then trying to mask the resulting shallow psychology, callous hatred for non-virginal women, nonexistent characterizations, and plot/character contradictions under well-written prose. Sorry, I don’t buy it. This is not even close to Edith Wharton – this is more of a bad 7th Heaven morality crap tale written when the scriptwriters are still having bad hangovers. Whores = bad and deserve to die. Hero = good even if he uses women for sex, drinks, and gambles, because he pays those women he hired. How wonderful!